Hello, readers! In case you missed it, this is one in five posts – number four, to be exact. If you missed the previous posts, Motive, Evil Deeds, and Independence, it’s best if you go back and read them first, because the points build on each other.
You’ve read the previous posts? Great! Read on:
‘Antagonist’ and ‘villain’ are not synonymous.
‘Antagonist’ and ‘protagonist’ are perspective positions in a story. ‘Hero’ and ‘Villain’ are character roles and archetypes. Therefore the protagonist is the main POV (point of view) character of the story; the antagonist is the character who blocks the protagonist from achieving his goal, opposes him. A hero is a type of character that is at least generally good and works to better the lives of those around him and/or save the world, whereas a villain is generally evil and does not care about/actively tries to hurt/oppress the people around him and/or take over/destroy the world.
A villain can be a protagonist. He just has to be the main character of the story. And a hero can be an antagonist. A hero protagonist can have another hero as their antagonist – consider the story of Les Miserables. The protagonist of the story is Jean ValJean. The antagonist is Javert. Jean, after meeting the Bishop and getting the silver candlesticks, develops into a very, very good character. His heart is golden. He aims to help people. He’s definitely a hero. Javert is a devout police officer, where the law is God. His only aim in life is to see justice served, the one true good he knows. And that description pins Javert as a hero, too. They’re two different heroes (in DnD, we’d say Jean is “Chaotic Good” and Javert is “Lawful Good”) but they’re both heroic, nonetheless. And yet, who is constantly chasing down Jean and hedging up his way, blocking Jean’s goals and making life generally difficult for him? Javert. Javert is the antagonist. There is a villain in Les Miserables, M. Thenardier, but he’s a bit more of a secondary character.
(as a side note, there is a movie rendition, I believe it’s the most recent non-musical, in which the actor who plays Javert plays him as a villain. I hate the entire movie because of this. That is incorrect. I actually read an only slightly abridged version of Les Miserables. That is incorrect. Javert is not a villain.)
Two villains can also fill the role of protagonist and antagonist, although I imagine that would be somewhat rare, unless you find your ‘hero’ is actually kind of a jerk, and maybe he’s more in the antihero/villain territory. I actually will be writing a story with a mostly-villain protagonist in which the antagonist is also a villain – the situation is overlord and minion, from the perspective of the minion. He wouldn’t have become evil if it hadn’t been for the overlord. (I also will not be writing this book any time soon.)
Why is it important to make this distinction? Aside from getting your terminology straight, which is vital for someone in the industry, it helps you to understand the relationships between your characters. And it also helps you keep your perspective, and can help you remember the above tip. Consider this scenario:
A third grader is on his way to lunch when a fifth grader beats him up and takes his lunch money. This happens every single day. The third grader tries to avoid the bigger kid but the bigger kid always finds him and beats him up and the smaller child is too afraid to tell on him. The protagonist here is clearly the third grader and the antagonist, the bully. Now, make the bully the protagonist.
A fifth grader has been having trouble at home. Every evening, when his father comes home, his mother seems to disappear and the boy is left to deal with his dad on his own. Usually, he can stay out of his father’s way but sometimes, he makes his father angry and he hits the boy. He doesn’t tell anyone because he doesn’t want his family torn apart. The boy’s father is supposed to give the boy lunch money, but he usually forgets and the boy is too afraid to ask his father for it, so when he gets to school, he finds that scrawny third grader and takes his money because at least his parents love him. We already knew the bully would be the protagonist here, and the antagonist is clear here, too: his father. And what a perspective change! We still feel terrible for the smaller child, but we hurt for the bigger kid, too. And we’re so angry at the father right now. Let’s make him the protagonist and see where that could lead us.
A man coming out of his youth feels unfulfilled in life. He dropped out of college to marry a pretty young woman, not realizing there’s much more to marriage than attraction. She wasn’t willing to do much more than stay home, expecting him to support her, and therefore he wasn’t able to ever return back to school. He found a blue collar job fixing cars, thanks to his teenage summers spent doing just that with his grandpa, but with his wife’s expectations and spending, it wound up barely being enough. She didn’t tell him when she got off birth control because he didn’t think they could afford a baby. It’s not that he didn’t ever want children, and therefore it was all the more bitter when he couldn’t be excited about the birth of their son. Now he has to work harder than ever, often double-shifts. He’s gained a dependency on alcohol to get him through each day and his wife won’t even come near him anymore. His son is a strapping young boy but he seems to be getting in trouble at school. Why can’t his son do his best to help out? Now he has two dependents who do nothing to help him with his dreams, the dreams they stole from him. We made the father the protagonist…who is the antagonist here? It’s a little more abstract. Is it his wife? Maybe he’s his own antagonist. It’s possible, that is one of the four set-ups with protagonists and antagonists: man vs self. But who might other antagonists be? And tell me this: even if you don’t feel sorry for the father at all, don’t you understand him a little better? Is his motive clear? Do you see how he’s an independent person from any other character, as I was trying to explain previously?
Try switching around your hero and villain as protagonists and antagonists. Just as a writing exercise. Try to see fairly from your villain’s eyes. And don’t get antagonist and villain mixed up.